Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Waiting for the forensic movie, or why I don't fear Big Brother

I have said it before, and I'll say it again - I do not fear that multiple government agencies will conspire together to take away my freedom. In fact, I do not fear that multiple government departments within a single agency will conspire together to take away my freedom. Why not? Because people in agencies protect their turf against everyone, including other agencies or other departments within the same agency.

Case in point - I was doing some work-related research and I happened to run across this May 2009 story:

It may look like the kind of high-tech gizmo seen on “Mission Impossible,” but a new hand scanner at Anteater Recreation Center isn’t designed to keep out spies: It allows ARC members to enter the facility without breaking a sweat....

On a recent afternoon at the ARC, the system was seamless: Students placed their palms on a metal plate, lining their fingers up with metal guides and a hand outline, entered their personal identification numbers and passed quickly through the turnstiles to begin their workouts....

The scanner doesn’t take palm prints; it analyzes more than 31,000 points and 90 measurements on the hand – including length, width, thickness and surface area – and compares the data with that on file for a member’s PIN. While not as unique as a fingerprint, hand geometry is precise enough that there’s little chance of two palms matching.

OK, nice story, and one that we're going to see more often about the use of biometrics.

But there's a wrinkle to this story - Anteater Recreation Center is at the University of California at Irvine. (Yes, UC Irvine's mascot is the anteater.) And UC Irvine just happens to be the place where Simon A. Cole is a professor. And Cole is well-known in forensic science circles because he believes that "forensic science" is, in most cases, an oxymoron - or, to cite an example, that there is no scientific basis for the Anteater Recreation Center to claim that its hand geometry system can uniquely identify individuals.

So one part of UC Irvine is using a system that another part of UC Irvine claims is hogwash.

And if you want another example of mixed signals, just head up Interstate 5 to Los Angeles, where the city and county are sending contradictory messages to the movie industry:

Talk about mixed signals. On the same day the L.A. City Council moved to draft an ordinance to offer filmmakers a 1% refund on state sales taxes, the county's Board of Supervisors approved a substantial increase in film-permit fees charged by the county Fire Department.

The new Fire Department fee ordinance raises the standard permit review fees to $288 from $104. Fees for use of pyrotechnics and special effects would increase to $282 from $125. And the annual inspection fee for fuel-dispensing trucks would increase to $223, up from $40. The new fees could take effect as early as January, only after the Fire Department has implemented a new inspection program.

Well, at least the County did one miraculous thing - it managed to unite labor and management in opposition to its plan.

Melissa Patack, vice president of state governments affairs for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, called the fee increases "substantial."...

"It's coming at an extremely bad time,'' said Ed Duffy, business agent for Teamsters Local 399, which represents casting directors, driver and location managers.

I don't have the book handy, but in Dave Barry Slept Here, Barry said something to the effect that our system of government is designed in such a way that a change in one part of government results in an equal, opposite reaction from another part of government.

How true.
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